As the dust settles after the 67th Montana Legislature, one thing is for certain: the debate over nonresident hunting licenses and the role of outfitting is far from over.
Montana’s system for allocating nonresident big game hunting licenses needed major changes, outfitters and advocates contended as the session got underway. An uptick in applications for the lottery system created a great deal of uncertainty for their businesses when it came to how many clients will draw licenses in a given year, they said.
Suggested changes drew the ire of a number of hunter advocacy groups. Proposals like guaranteed licenses for outfitted hunters would disadvantage do-it-yourself nonresident hunters, but more importantly privatize a public resource for those that could afford to pay, they argued.
Ultimately a late amendment would come providing both short- and long-term changes that have continued to divide Montana’s hunting world.
The Montana Outfitters and Guides Association came into the Legislature backing Senate Bill 143 from Sen. Jason Ellsworth, R-Hamilton. That legislation proposed setting aside 60% of nonresident big game hunting licenses for those who book with an outfitter, thus providing the stability businesses said they need to operate.
After significant pushback from many resident and nonresident hunters and advocacy groups, SB 143 was amended on the Senate floor to remove the guarantees in favor of an early and more expensive drawing for the licenses. The amendment dedicated all proceeds to the Habitat Montana access program, a program which some Republicans have had past concerns about, and action on the bill ceased.
Outfitters also believed the earlier draw would not time well with trade shows and could promote more general interest from nonresidents, including those that would hunt public land.
But then Rep. Seth Berglee brought another amendment in the waning days of the session. Citing a 30% surge in nonresident applications this year, the Joliet Republican amended his House Bill 637, an overarching fish and wildlife bill that made a number of changes to various laws and programs.
The amendment included a one-time allowance for any nonresident that had booked with an outfitter before April 1, but failed to draw a big game hunting license, to purchase one.
The amendment also revamps the nonresident preference point system. If applicants fail to draw a lottery license, they may purchase a preference point to double their odds the following year with a maximum of three points. Now nonresidents hunting with outfitters may purchase a second preference point, giving them an advantage over non-outfitted nonresidents.
Additional revenue generated by the amendment goes to multiple habitat and access programs.
Although debate was contentious, the amended bill received enough support of majority House and Senate Republicans to clear its final legislative hurdles in a single day. HB 637 now awaits action by Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte.
Montana once offered guaranteed hunting licenses for nonresidents that booked with an outfitter. The 2010 ballot initiative I-161 did away with those licenses, meaning both outfitted and do-it-yourself nonresidents were in the same lottery pool for one of 17,000 big game licenses.
Outfitters say the system created by I-161 has meant a great deal of uncertainty for their businesses. Prospective clients can book with an outfitter but then must wait to see if they are successful in the lottery. That means not knowing from year to year how many hunters will be paying for their services.
For several years the nonresident hunting licenses went underdrawn, with some unsold. That meant a surplus of tags that could be purchased outright after the lottery.
That trend changed around 2017, and by 2018, more out-of-staters applied for big game licenses than were available. Interest has continued to grow, with all licenses now awarded through the lottery.
After a year greatly affected by COVID-19, this year’s lottery saw a nearly 30% surge in overall applications. In 2020, about 23,000 nonresident hunters applied. In 2021, total applications leapt to nearly 32,000.
While it varied from outfitter to outfitter, the 2021 uptick meant many saw the success of their clients in drawing licenses drop, according to industry representatives.
“The reality is we were sitting at about a 40-45% loss across the board,” Mac Minard with MOGA, said. “That meant there really was an urgency to address the issue of stability. To not do something was not an option.”
Minard believes the rollout of SB 143 was clumsy and that initially dedicating 60% of licenses to outfitters was far too high and a poor strategic decision. Although judging by the pushback, he also believes any percentage of licenses set aside for outfitters would have seen major opposition.
“I think the message of this session was crystal clear: that sponsored licenses, as attractive as they might be to our industry, are a no-go in Montana,” he said. “So now we’ll take this new system for a test drive and see how it works or doesn’t work.”
One reason the bill drew such significant opposition were concerns about overturning the will of voters in I-161. Online campaigns triggered hundreds of emails to legislators asking them to vote “no.”
In the aftermath MOGA unsuccessfully lobbied lawmakers on both sides of the aisle on different concepts that would not carve out outfitter licenses. When the draw came out in mid-April and outfitters started reporting the drop in successful clients, it created a sense of urgency that eventually led to Berglee’s amendment.
“We’re obviously pleased with the outcome,” Minard said. “This is not what we originally went after and looked at, but it will work. I do not believe the average Montana hunter or non-guided hunter will notice a difference except more money for access programs.”
To several hunter advocacy groups, the process that brought and quickly passed one-time licenses for outfitted nonresidents and the change to preference points cut out the voice of most resident and out-of-state hunters.
“The concept of a special interest tag was wildly unpopular and that was illustrated with (SB) 143,” said Nick Gevock with the Montana Wildlife Federation. “So what did they do? They rammed a bill through in a matter of hours with zero public input. The trust is gone.”
With increasing applications for nonresident tags, Gevock believes Montana outfitters should focus on growing their client pools for the draws rather than trying to change the system. Having more clients in the draw would mean a better chance for full bookings rather than relying on relying on repeat clients that won’t draw every year.
The revamped preference point system also presents issues moving forward as do-it-yourself hunters see their odds dwindled, he added.
John Sullivan with Backcountry Hunters and Anglers echoed frustrations about the process.
“The way it went down is really unfortunate,” he said. “My feeling looking across the landscape is that less people are mad at the outfitting industry and more are mad at legislators that went to Helena this session. I mean, we don’t expect them to try to overturn a citizen initiative, have that shut down by the loud voice of Montana sportsmen, then in the last minutes of the session pass a bill with no public comment.”
Beyond the process, Sullivan says he still has issues with Berglee’s amendment, including that it does not cap the number of additional nonresident licenses that may be purchased this year through the one-time allowance.
Berglee defended the process, saying that at the end of the session amendments have limited vehicles to move forward and the aftermath of the draw results necessitated action to keep some small businesses afloat.
“You get to the end of every session and it’s always crazy, so to me the argument that it’s bad government, I don’t really agree,” he said.
The public provided feedback on various concepts to revise nonresident licensing during the session, Berglee said, and he feels he was upfront about what was in the amendment during committee and floor debates. What frustrated Berglee was what he saw as heavy opposition from hunter advocacy groups to his and other bills, but not enough compromise.
“A lot of the issues around wildlife are emotional, it is a major part of our heritage,” he said. “For me, I think there were a couple of groups that misrepresented bills I carried using inflammatory or cherry-picked language. But I didn’t think they were looking for solutions, it was more about building memberships.”
Berglee clarified his criticism was largely limited to bills he carried and he had not studied the debate around SB 143 in depth. He added he was also frustrated with trying to get unpublished information from the working group advising Fish, Wildlife & Parks as the state updates its elk management plan, believing it could have helped shape policy.
Berglee said he understands sometimes hunters may have had experiences that tainted perceptions of outfitters, or seen private land leased for outfitting and view it as a loss of access. He thinks outfitters could do a better job reaching out because many are like other Montana small businesses, and to him, the amendment was about supporting small businesses.
Minard also felt the late amendment was the product of a lack of compromise, but he believes the issue dates back through past administrations before bubbling to the surface during the session.
“Because it became an issue of overruling the people on I-161, to physically carve out licenses, we test-drove some ideas with leading legislators, both Democrats and Republicans, and we couldn’t get anywhere,” he said. “Everything we put forward just had this incredibly intense opposition, and the message was becoming clear, that nobody there was really interested in solving anything.”
Both Gevock and Sullivan pointed to the amendment on SB 143 as evidence their groups had looked for solutions.
“It’s just not true,” Gevock said of the criticism of a lack of compromise. “Solutions were offered to give more stability to the outfitting industry. It was a much easier solution we offered to move up the drawing date because that would’ve given us the earliest draw in the country and an advantage over every other state.”
Sullivan said his organization did not love the amendment to SB 143 because it could still favor someone with more money to spend on the costlier early draw, but did decide to support it over the original bill.
“The sportsmen community has provided solutions and been involved, but we are public land sportsmen, regular citizens that do not want to have outfitter set aside licenses and we spoke up,” he said. “With the movement of DIY sportsmen and women, I understand (outfitters) are probably running into more challenges. BHA, our membership, no we don’t want to see the industry die or go out of business. Everybody needs to find a way to move forward.”
While tensions surely remain following the session, the idea of attempting collaboration could offer an appealing opportunity. It’s not clear when or if that could take place.
“Sitting around the table with the outfitting industry, getting stakeholders together, is a good way to start a conversation,” Sullivan said.
Berglee said the changes should be given a chance to see how they work but could be revisited. With the funding going to improve public access, he believes the changes won’t be as bad as opponents contend.
“I’m not sure if this is the long-term solution,” he said. “I’m kind of to the point in politics where I’d rather do something and take heat over it and see if it works rather than kick the can down the road.”
Tom Kuglin is the deputy editor for the Lee Newspapers State Bureau. His coverage focuses on outdoors, recreation and natural resources.